One of my favourite Youtubers, Joanna Hausmann, has a video dedicated to just this subject – words in English and Spanish which are tricky to translate into the other language. It’s not just nouns or verbs though – these differences between our languages go much deeper, and are sewn right into the fabric of our speech. As soon as you begin learning Spanish, you’re introduced to usted/tú, as well as ustedes/vosotros and you have to conjugate accordingly. An English “you” is democratic, because it applies to everyone – but this is not the case in Spanish, where you have to bear in mind the other person’s age or social status –as well as their gender, if there’s more than one person- when you address them.
La thesis de Nancy is all about an American girl who struggles with Spanish.
There’s a lot to be said on this topic, but for the purposes of this post I want to look at just ten examples of Spanish words I’ve come across which have (and sometimes still do) amused, bemused or just confused me.
1.Madrugar. There’s something a bit poetic about this one. It means “to get up early”. It comes from the noun la madrugada, the dawn. Me cuesta mucho madrugar.
2. Gemelos/mellizos. These both mean “twins” (and gemelos also means “cufflinks”). Gemelos is used for identical twins; mellizos for fraternal twins. Simple enough, I suppose, but I always get the two meanings mixed up, probably because in English we simply say “twins” most of the time.
3. Chapurrear. This verb means “to speak a language badly”. Chapurreo italiano.
4. Tuerto. This term is for someone blind in one eye, or who has just one eye, like Nelson on Nelson’s Column. See also: manco (someone with just one arm or one hand).
5. Sobremesa. There are about a million “expat” (I hate that word! But that’s another post) blogs about the sobremesa. It literally means “over the table” but what it refers to is the pleasant Spanish habit of lingering at the table after the meal is done, perhaps having a coffee or something stronger, but generally just chatting rather than rushing to get finished and do the next thing.
6. Estrenar. If you know the noun estreno, you’ll know it means a film premiere. But the verb means to wear an outfit for the first time, or to use something for the first time. I’m premiering this dress today, I’m glad you like it.
7. Ser/estar. This is very hard when you first start learning Spanish – and also when you’re supposedly more advanced (ahem). Both words just mean “to be”. If you need an explanation, there’s a decent one here. But let me just say that even native speakers mix them up: I’ve been told that strictly it’s correct to say estoy casada, but plenty of people will say soy casada. And why is it está muerto? I never understand that one.
8. Friolera. In the north of England there is actually a dialect word for this and it’s used fairly frequently, especially among the older generation: “nesh”. It means someone who’s cold all the time, or someone who feels the cold.
9. Recoveco. Carlos taught me this one. One definition into English is “nook” as in “nook and cranny”, but according to the RAE the principal definition is actually the twists and turns of a narrow street. A specialist word no doubt – I might actually engineer it into a conversation sometime soon.
10. Entrecejo. This is a word for the space between your eyebrows! Not a unibrow, as I first thought (that’s a unicejo).
There are others too, and of course it depends where in the world you are – the Spanish say quincena, which in Britain we happily translate as “fortnight”, a term not frequently used in some other parts of the English-speaking world. There’s also anteayer (the day before yesterday) and its natural counterpart, pasado mañana (the day after tomorrow) as well as the slightly awkward soler, which sort of means “tend to” or “tended to”.
What have I missed?